When Kathryn Harrison, 34, wanted to see silkworms in action to research her new novel, she dragged her two young children through a punishing snowstorm to the Smithsonian Institution's Insect Zoo. When she wanted to try the ancient ritual of bloodletting she donated blood twice in one afternoon to make the ordeal as intense as possible. "If I think something will offer illumination, I tend to go full speed ahead," says Harrison, a graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who lives with Sarah, 5, Walker, 3, and her writer husband, Colin, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What obsessed you about Marie Louise?
Her persecution was so utterly unfair. Here was a woman—an actual historical figure—who had been raised a princess in Louis XIV's court then sent across the border to Spain as a child bride, where she suffered terribly. I felt a chivalric quest to give her a voice and redress the wrongs.
Where else did you do research?
I went by myself to trace Marie Louise's route from Versailles to Madrid when I was seven months pregnant. It was wretched; I was pickled in hormones and inclined to weep. At one point, I was standing in a museum full of period furniture when I started having false labor pains. This hysterical Spanish woman shoved me into a 500-year-old chair. We had a burlesque interlude with me trying not to break the spindly chair and her screaming at me to relax. I went home shortly after that.
Was the trip worth it?
Yes. Feeling so alone and imperiled was all very useful. It gave me a better sense of how this woman must have felt so far away from home and friendless.